The Sad State of Civil Liberties  

Two excellent articles in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books powerfully underscore the sad state that respect for civil liberties has sunk in the United States in the 11 years since the war on terror was declared (and yes, we know that US record of civil liberties wasn’t always exemplary before then, but still). Perhaps it’s in the nature of declaring war against concepts that takes us down the slippery slope.

Steve Coll in his review of No Easy Day: The First-Hand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden by one of the Navy SEAL team leaders in the Abbottabad raid zeroes in on our very troubling collective acceptance of the de facto order to kill Osama bin Laden — rather than capture and bring him to court. Of course there is no doubt that Osama bin Laden was guilty of planning, financing and masterminding a series of heinous crimes against US targets including the September 11 attacks. And yes, there was no actual order to have him killed. But Coll makes it clear that the mission essentially left no possibility for bin Laden to be captured alive (“The only way bin Laden was going to be taken alive was if he was naked, had his hands in the air, was waving a white flag, and was unambiguously shouting ‘I surrender’” in the words of a Pentagon official is quoted by Coll), and thus intentionally and clearly amounted to a de facto kill order.

There was also no doubt that Hitler was guilty of planning and masterminding atrocities of much greater enormity. But the orders of the allied forces were not to kill him. And it was arguably a turning point for Western civilization that people like Hermann Goering were tried at Nuremberg rather than executed in cold blooded revenge upon capture.

More troubling than the Obama administration’s decision on this is the ensuing public reaction. Almost no mainstream source criticized or questioned the kill order. It seems that we have come to expect much less from our politicians and ourselves.

This, unfortunately, is confirmed by Michael Greenberg’s article on the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) anti-terror tactics, which make even the FBI and the CIA appear soft-touched. The NYPD’s Intel division tasked with tracking and capture of “homegrown terrorists” routinely entraps Muslim young men, and seems to presume that they are guilty unless proven otherwise — both in its intrusive surveillance and in hatching plans to catch them red-handed. Equally disturbing is that Intel seems to particularly favor those with mental instability and IQs far less than 100. In fact, in the two most advertised cases of homegrown terrorism supposedly foiled by Intel, that of Jose Pimentel arrested in November 2010 and of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mandouh arrested in May 2011, the FBI declined to be involved with Intel on the grounds that these were not serious terrorist threats and federal courts have refused to hear them. Greenberg paints a very troubling picture of the only federal conviction to come out of Intel operations, that of Shahawar Matin Siraj, a likely case of entrapment of a man with an IQ of 78.

Greenberg correctly identifies why this slide of our respect for civil rights and liberties is so dangerous for our cherished institutions (what we would call the US inclusive institutions): the NYPD has now come to add to its highly discriminatory and in all likelihood illegal stop-and-frisk tactics in African-American neighborhoods and its surveillance, abuse and entrapment against the city’s Muslim population the routine deployment of the same heavy-handed tactics against any kind of dissent — especially against members of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sure we should worry about inequality, unemployment, money in politics, the fiscal cliff, all the disingenuous rhetoric from both parties on our budget deficit, our failing schools and all that. And we do. But a complete collapse of inclusive institutions can only happen if political institutions turn extractive and repressive. So what’s happening in Zuccotti Park and during the May Day demonstrations in New York City may have as much relevance as a warning sign on how close we have come to destroying our largely inclusive institutions.

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